Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Universe and Star Trek

Star Trek in its Roddenberry Era stories worked hard to keep up with scientific discoveries about the universe, as well as the more advanced theories.  But Captain Kirk's 23rd century was based on views of the universe from over 40 years ago, and Picard's 24th century on the universe as known or theorized about a quarter century ago.

But according to a new book, The New Universe and the Human Future by Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack (Yale University Press), the astronomers' and physicists' knowledge of the universe (or "scientific cosmology") has advanced a great deal since the end of the 20th century.  So how does our shared Star Trek universe hold up?

 I don't mean Trek's strange new worlds and new civilizations--none of those have been found, despite the evidence of hundreds of planets around other stars.  But in how the universe works, and what's in it?

Astronomer Primack and cultural philosopher Abrams sketch a dazzling vision of that.  They describe the Double Dark Theory--a universe determined by two factors not even known in the 1960s: called dark matter and dark energy.

The key to discovering how this universe works came at the end of the 1990s, they write, when it was confirmed that the known universe is expanding: that is, space itself is expanding.  Then the discovery of dark matter (which might be more accurately called transparent matter), which is by far the largest component of the universe.  Dark matter protects the physical matter of the galaxies.  Dark energy is the force pulling the universe apart.  Together they seem to settle the argument about whether the universe will eventually contract, and possibly start all over again.  The answer seems to be it won't--it will keep expanding.

The galaxies are grouped together in super-galaxies, and within them is what we know as physical reality.  Within our Local Group of galaxies, the galaxies are actually moving closer together (our galaxy and Andromeda will eventually merge), as the universe as a whole is expanding.  Though the forces and scales can be huge or extremely small, and the distances between stars and galaxies very great, this is still the relatively comprehensible "tame space," as they call it.  Outside the supergalaxies is "wild space"--unimaginably huge and strange--so strange that it "is not physical in the commonsense meaning of the world."  It is not, for one thing, comprised of atoms.  It bears no resemblance to tame space.

our Tame Space universe according to the Planck telescope 

So does this mean that the Star Trek universe is obsolete?  Not really.  Star Trek takes place in one galaxy, and even that is not completely explored.  But this cosmology doesn't seem to alter much of what was known about our galaxy itself.  And in some interesting ways, this book supports a few key elements of the Star Trek universe that have been otherwise controversial.

For example, aliens.  Star Trek aliens all look more or less like humans--same basic size, etc.  There's more variety in Star Trek novels, where the aliens don't actually have to be seen, or recite lines.  But that's always been a question--addressed in several Star Trek stories that suggested parent species that seeded the galaxy with their DNA.  There are biology-based theories that suggest complex and intelligent creatures would probably be more or less like humans.  These authors offer a theory based on their cosmology--on the size of the universe, from its largest (and structurally simplest) dark matter to subatomic particles.  We exist in the midrange:they use a name from Norse mythology for this middle-sized range in which the galaxies exist. They call it Midgard.

 Humans are in about the middle of Midgard's range of sizes. "And we couldn't be anywhere else," they write.  "If we were much smaller, we wouldn't have enough atoms to be complex.  If we were much larger, the speed of thought and other internal communications (which are limited by the speed of light) would be too slow.  Only near the center of all possible sizes can consciousness as complex as ours arise, and this tells us something important about intelligent life anywhere in the universe: if it exists at all, it will have to have approximately our size, somewhere between a redwood tree and a puppy, which is a very narrow range of possibilities."

Star Trek does show conscious intelligence smaller than that, and other science fiction posits larger beings--entire planets or suns.  But most of Star Trek's aliens are certainly smaller than redwood trees, and bigger than puppies.

But the authors suggest--without saying much about it--that dark matter and dark energy could interact with consciousness in ways we don't understand.  So the range of non-corporeal or pure energy beings and forces in Trek and sci-fi remain possibilities.

This book is not alone in maintaining that the kind of space travel Star Trek starships do is impossible--there is no way to travel faster than the speed of light.  But they advocate human space travel anyway, and they counter one prominent argument against it, which is that humans "will run amok and wreck other planets the way European conquerors wrecked so many indigenous cultures that they colonized."  They say instead: "Space pioneering would be impossible for the short-sighted, egocentric kind of people we were and in many cases still are today.  To explore and gradually move out into the Galaxy is a project that could be successfully undertaken by a long-lived civilization with a shared, unifying cosmology that accurately reflects the universe."  This civilization "would have to be a cosmic society," with an outlook "completely inconsistent with the narrowness, greed, and willful ignorance of the Other--traits central to the plunderer mentality."

In other words, the humanity that sets out for the stars will need to look a lot like the Roddenberry version of the future, with a united Earth and an enlightened Federation, and the Prime Directive as an expression of its soul.

This book is also about using this new cosmology and the importance of humanity within it to motivate today's earthlings to save their planet from the consequences of their own actions .   “If we had a transnationally shared, believable picture of the cosmos, including a mythic-quality story of its origins and our origins—a picture recognized as equally true for everyone on this planet—we humans would see our problems in an entirely new light, and we would almost certainly solve them.”  

This book has its own website, which links to some really fine videos, especially here.

Meanwhile, this summer's news tells us that a U.S. defense agency is ponying up half a million bucks to start a 100 year research project to design the first starships.  This BBC story about it uses a photo of the Enterprise to illustrate it.

Meanwhile, new discoveries continue--one of them announced recently that supports that favorite of Star Trek authors, the multiverse.


Maurice Mitchell said...

Really interesting stuff. I've never thought of how limited a view of the universe Star Trek proposed. Makes you wonder how many strange new worlds are left to explore. Warp drive wouldn't be enough to explore the universe.

Pauly O said...

a really interesting blog! Huge Star Trek fan and I have my own Star Trek Blog.. Check it out sometime!